I’m going to start this column by talking a little bit about one of my favorite athletes. He’s someone that most all of you will definitely be familiar with.
When I was about five or six years old, and just beginning to become invested in sports (bad decision, buddy), the first team I latched onto was the N.C. State Wolfpack. As a kid from Raleigh, and given that my Mom went there, it was something that was kind of pushed on me, but I loved them. I went all in on them so, so young. Oops.
When I was that age, the football team there had this quarterback. His name was Philip Rivers, and he was my hero. I adored him. Some of my earliest and best sports memories are of that 28-6 Gator Bowl win over Notre Dame in 2002 and watching Rivers and wide receiver Jericho Cotchery walk off the field together for the final time at the tail end of a complete demolition of Kansas in the Tangerine Bowl.
On his draft day in 2004, I was very briefly a Giants fan, before ultimately pledging loyalty to the then-San Diego Chargers for as long as he was there when he got traded.
Throughout his NFL career, and as it nears its end, I’ve begun to liken Rivers to Sisyphus. I’m sure you all know the legend. In Greek mythology, Sisyphus is the one who is eternally doomed to push a boulder all the way up a hill, only to watch it roll all the way back down as he nears the top. Again, and again, and again, and again.
That’s what it’s been like watching Rivers come so close with some really good Chargers teams, and it’s what it’s been like watching him drag some truly dreadful Chargers teams toward wholly undeserved relevancy.
The reason I bring this up is because it’s starting to feel as though, just like the guy who played his college ball a stone’s throw from the Entertainment and Sports Arena, that building’s professional inhabitants are the NHL franchise embodiment of Sisyphus.
Oh, you just had an emotional, pick-me-up win at home against Florida? You want to use that to build momentum and turn your season around? Nope, you’re getting blanked by Vancouver next game. Oh yeah, and it’s by Jacob Markstrom, the guy who was tantalizingly close to setting the record for most NHL starts without a shutout.
You just traded for and signed your next starting goalie for four years? Well, he’s gonna show flashes of brilliance, but he’s going to have a really tough time settling into his new role.
That 13-game point streak you had last year to almost make the playoffs? Yeah, that momentum is going to carry over to next year not at all. Oh, and it was just smoke and mirrors anyway. Take a look at that 104 PDO during that stretch.
On, and on, and on, and on, and on.
Usually what I do in this column is break down advanced stats to find some positives in what the team is doing. It’s pretty easy, and it’s because those charts, graphs, and tables are one area where this team has no trouble whatsoever appearing to be really, really good.
It never translates to the standings though.
And this isn’t to say that advanced stats aren’t incredibly useful and very predictive. There are 30 teams in this league I’m willing to judge by their underlying numbers, but that number won’t go back up to 31 until there’s a reason for it to.
I don’t have answers as to why this team still isn’t good, and nobody else seems to either.
Maybe the coach’s system is one that looks good by some metrics but isn’t conducive to winning games. Maybe it’s a good system executed by players who don’t have the talent to consistently win with it. Maybe it’s a system that makes things hard on goaltenders in a way that doesn’t show up in advanced stats.
It could be any of these things, along with many other possibilities, and there seems to be no way of knowing for sure.
Maybe they actually are as good as some numbers say they are and it’s just a matter of time before things start to click, but I’m not very confident in that at this point.
I’m not sure what the path to making this a playoff team looks like, but I feel pretty comfortable in saying the one they’re on right now is not it. I also understand that the moves that might need to be made to get there are incredibly difficult to make.
I would hope attempts are being made. I would hope the front office knows that a season of the same issues and same results is not acceptable after such a promising off-season.
The clock is ticking. This team has quite a few good, young players who are either just entering their prime or coming close to doing so. Yeah, they have a few years, but they also can’t afford to waste years full of what-ifs and if-onlys.
But something needs to change. Whether that’s a significant piece or portion of the roster, something relating to the culture, something in the front office, or something with the men standing behind that bench every night, I have no idea.
Whether they make a big change or not, maybe it won’t be enough. Maybe this team will forever be too good to have a top pick but not good enough to make the playoffs. But maybe they’ll finally get that boulder over that hill. I know a lot of people who would love to see that.